The Media Center Extender shootout

Vista Media Center really sets itself apart from any other DVR solution out there, and the single greatest advantage Vista Media Center (VMC) has over the other options -- like the TiVo HD -- is the ability to have multiple Media Center Extenders. There really isn't any better way out there that will allow you to watch premium HD cable in every room of your house while at the same time centralizing all your media in one place. When VMC first hit the streets, there was only one HD extender: the Xbox 360. But the problem, of course, is that the Xbox is noisy and will always be a gaming console first and a Media Center Extender second. Well, things have really heated up in the extender market recently when both Linksys and D-Link released Media Center Extenders and HP upgraded its MediaSmart HDTVs.


The test
Although two out of three of these devices do more than just extend VMC around your house, we ignored the other features. It's not that we don't think that the other features matter, it's that we figure if those features are important to you, then you have no reason to read a review -- i.e., gamers will want a 360. The one thing we wished we would've included is a HP MediaSmart TV, but again, if you are in the market for a TV with a built-in Extender then you have an easy decision to make. It is also important to realize that there are more extenders on the horizon and one that was out of our budget. The Niveus Media Extender is way too pricey for us and neither the HP MediaSmart Connect nor the Samsung Digital Media Adapter are availble yet. As for our methods, the VMC and all three Extenders were connected to a Pioneer PDP-6010FD via HDMI, except for the 360 which utilized component.

Picture and Sound quality
Overall, we have no complaints in regard to picture and sound quality and all three were very evenly matched. The colors are a bit different, and this is most evident on the VMC main menu. The 360 is dark like a real VMC. The D-Link and the Linksys both look a little washed out, with the Linksys being the lightest color blue of the three. We didn't notice any real world difference though, and we think it'd be easy enough to correct with the HDTV's settings. The one place we did notice a difference is when viewing photos; the quality is noticeably better on the 360 and VMC, with both the Linksys and the D-link exhibiting a little less detail.

Wireless Performance
We weren't able to stream over 802.11g no matter how close to the AP we were. 802.11n worked fine anywhere in our house, but occasionally we saw the Network performance error and some drop outs.

Ethernet on the other hand was rock solid and worked flawlessly at 100Mbps. In fact, we also have a HDHomeRun connected to our VMC, and not a frame was dropped even when sending five HD streams around the house simultaneously.

Not sure why both the D-Link and the Linksys come with such bad remotes. Luckily, you can use just about any VMC remote instead, which brings us to one of our gripes. While VMC has nine different IR codes to choose from, every extender works on IR code one. This makes it nearly impossible to use in the same AV rack -- for those with centralized equipment. The 360 can be configured to respond to the same IR code, or you can configure it to only respond to the 360 Media Center remote. Although the 360 remote could use more VMC centric buttons like Recorded TV, we do appreciate its overall feel, backlight and programmable buttons -- the DMA2100 has programmable buttons, but interestingly they wouldn't learn the codes from a Sharp TV we tried.

Screen saver
Seems silly, but having a screen saver on your HDTV can be very useful. The Linksys has a cool logo that bounces around, and the 360 dims then eventually turns off. Notably, we never saw one on the D-Link, but maybe we didn't wait long enough.

The Linksys vs the D-Link
Performance wise, both the DMA2100 and the DSM-750 are identical and lack the really cool animated transitions (see video below) the real VMC and 360 have -- but they're both just as snappy. We took a quick look inside to check out the difference between the two fanless units, and found no surprises inside as both units share almost the exact same internals. The big difference between the two is that the D-Link has Media Lounge, an extra antenna, built-in power supply, and both optical and coaxial S/PDIF (opposed to the Linksys with only coaxial S/PDIF). We did have a problem getting the D-Link to work with our Xantech IR repeater; in fact, despite trying three different emitters, we weren't able to get it to work at all. One other odd thing we noticed was that while the Linksys was willing to output 1080p, we couldn't get the D-Link to do it -- not a big deal if your HDTV has a good de-interlacer, but it's always good to have options.

*The DMA2100 does not ever really turn off, it takes 1 minute and 5 seconds to load if you unplug it.
** More codecs supported outside of VMC, 360 played MPEG-2 with the wrong aspect ratio.
*** Extra 360 specific cables required.

We are glad to see so many new ways to access all of our HD content (including recorded HD cable) on any HDTV in the house, and we're happy to say that every one of these devices is a great solution. But while gamers will be drawn to the value of the Xbox 360, the noise and sheer size of the box prevent it from being the ultimate solution for others. So as much as we miss the cool animated transitions, the old adage "Jack of all trades, master of none" was never more true, and in the case of Media Center Extenders we really prefer the Linksys DMA2100. It is less expensive, boots up faster, and is so small and quiet it will work in just about any application where the main goal is to access VMC. At the same time, it is a close race, and since an Extender is the kind of device you're likely to own more than one of, we'd probably choose one of each if we were outfitting our entire house.